6 Best Documentaries About Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug abuse has become one of America’s most pressing issues, one which has directly lead to the current heroin crisis in the Northeast and become a talking point in this year’s election. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2013 report “Addressing Prescription Drug Abuse in the United States,” total non-medical use of opioids rose from 2.2% to 3.8% — that’s a 74.6% increase in just under 10 years. It may not seem like much, but the CDC estimates that the total medical cost of opioid abuse in the United States is upwards of $72 billion.

So if you’re interested in getting in and learning more about one of America’s hot-button topics — and one that is sure to be present at the upcoming presidential debates — here are six of the best documentaries on the subject of prescription drugs.

1. Oxyana

Oxyana Documentary

Oxyana | Indie Street

If you’re interested in getting a detailed, macro view into the prescription drug issues plaguing our country, you’ll probably want to steer clear of Sean Dunne’s Oxyana. But if you’re interested in seeing a depiction of how prescription drug abuse is ravaging our small communities on a micro-level, Oxyana might be one of the best documentaries to be released on the subject.

In this harrowing documentary, Dunne explores drug abuse in the the town of Oceana, W. Va. where a once prosperous mining town has been overtaken by poverty and rampant oxycodone use. Premiering in 2013 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Oxyana is difficult to watch, but essential to understand the prescription drug crisis from the ground up.

2. Prescription Thugs

Dir. Chris Bell & Josh Alexander

Prescription Thugs | Samuel Goldwyn Films

Another film that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, this time in 2015, was Chris Bell’s Prescription Thugs. The film takes on the opposite approach of Oxyana and attempts to paint the broad strokes of prescription abuse in America while exploring the pharmaceutical industry’s blame when it comes to the current crisis. While the film doesn’t necessarily reveal any surprises, it can serve as a good starting point to understand the bigger picture.

Bell shows viewers the big players like the pharmaceutical industry and overprescribing doctors, but is also quick to show the devastating effects on not just poor neighborhoods, but also affluent ones. Making things even more interesting is the fact that when Bell began the documentary he was himself dealing with problems related to alcohol and Xanax abuse.

3. Generation RX

Generation RX Documentary

Generation RX | Common Radius Films

The 2008 documentary Generation RX, takes a different approach to the current crisis by focusing specifically on the widespread use of prescription drugs on children and young adults. In many ways, the film could be seen as a depicting events that eventually gave way to the problems we’re facing today. While the film sometimes borders on the sensational, it still provides enough stunning conclusions to be a worthwhile watch for anyone interested in how the pharmaceutical industry is continuously making choices that don’t benefit the people that take their drugs.

4. American Addict

Dir. Sasha Knezev and the war on prescription drugs

American Addict | Synergetic Distribution

Similar to Prescription Thugs, this documentary takes a top down approach that also involves the politics that keep this situation from improving. American Addict begins with the following facts: America, with 5% of the world’s population, consumes 50% of the world’s pharmaceuticals and 80% of the world’s prescription narcotics. It sounds too insane to be true, but in fact the numbers have been confirmed by reputable sources and with those three statistics it becomes clear just how much of a problem we face.

5. OxyContin: Time Bomb

CBC News, OxyContin: Time Bomb

OxyContin: Time Bomb | CBC News

While all the other documentaries on this list deal with OxyContin, at least indirectly, OxyContin: Time Bomb from Canada’s CBC deals directly with the drug’s inception, its startling medical benefits, and the huge issues that eventually appeared when it became common. While the documentary deals primarily with OxyContin use in Canada, many of the same ideas apply and Canada’s issues with the drug often garner comparisons to America’s within the film.

6. Off Label

Dir. Donal Mosher, Michael Palmieri

Off Label | Oscilloscope

While Off Label hasn’t had as good a reception as some of the other films on this list, there are so few documentaries on this subject thus far that it’s worth mentioning. The film attempts to tackle the subject of America’s prescription drug abuse problem in a way that blends aspects of the micro and macro styles of the documentaries on this list. Exploring the stories of eight different people across the country with varying experiences with the epidemic, the film attempts to reveal a huge picture in only 80-minutes.

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